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Mobile Internet devices

Intel has been racking up the press clips in recent weeks for new chip designs aimed at cheap laptops and handheld devices (e.g., the Wall Street Journal today, Business Week last week, Engadget last month). The downsized chips promise to bring desktop computing power (albeit from a couple of desktop generations ago) to a new type of mass-market mobile Internet device -- something like an iPhone at half the price or less. This is another sign of the pieces falling into place for ubiquitous connectivity, that is, people being connected to the Net wherever they go. And when that happens, the Internet will probably change everything again.

We're in an interim stage in the process now, with near-ubiquitous connectivity for voice and SMS in the developed world thanks to the mobile phone networks. But as the recent moves by AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile to offer unlimited calling plans indicate, mobile carriers in the U.S. aren't eager yet for customers to use their airwaves continuously for video streaming, RSS feeds and other data applications. Meanwhile, efforts to build WiFi networks in cities have been set back by economic problems, delaying the arrival of new wireless data pipelines.

A new wave of low-cost portable computing devices could spur demand for cheap wireless bandwidth, helping municipal WiFi, WiMax and 700-Mhz services establish themselves. The demand for such devices seems clear -- look at the mania around the iPhone and the popularity of mobile e-mail devices among people who aren't chained to an office. So the question for the entertainment industry is, will content companies anticipate the wave by embracing ubiquitous connectivity and supporting services that rely on it? Or will they be beaten to the punch by entrepreneurs who entertain without enriching Hollywood?

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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